The Media Today

Maria Ressa’s conviction, and the Philippines’ dire information climate

June 16, 2020

“Evation.” Yesterday, authorities in the Philippines used that typo to convict Maria Ressa, the crusading journalist who founded the independent news site Rappler, and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos of “cyber-libel” charges. The typo appeared in a May 2012 article in which Santos linked Wilfredo Keng, a Filipino businessman, to the human-trafficking and drug trades. The story was published four months before the Philippines introduced the law under which the cyber-libel charges would eventually be brought, placing the story beyond that law’s scope. Then, in 2014, Rappler spotted and fixed the typo. Prosecutors argued that the fix amounted to “republication” of the article, which meant the cyber-libel law applied to it after all. That interpretation, like almost everything else about the case, was a stretch—this morning, Ressa decried it as “legal acrobatics”—but that didn’t stop a judge handing down a guilty verdict.

Ressa and Santos could now face up to six years in prison. They plan to appeal. Whatever the eventual sentence, the verdict is another sharp blow to press freedom in the Philippines, whose authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, has waged a relentless campaign to silence critics, including Ressa, who have spoken out about atrocities including a war on drugs that has claimed at least twelve thousand Filipino lives to date, many at the hands of the state. The Philippines’ National Union of Journalists said the verdict against Ressa and Santos “basically kills freedom of speech and of the press.” Ressa’s voice cracked as, speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, she said, “To the Filipinos watching, this is not just about Rappler or about us. This is about you. Because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have.” This morning, Ressa vowed to fight on. She tweeted “#HoldTheLine”—a slogan that has become a rallying cry among Duterte’s critics.

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Yesterday’s convictions marked an escalation of officials’ harassment of Ressa and Rappler. Pro-government accounts have repeatedly mobbed Rappler on social media; Duterte banned the site’s reporters from the presidential palace and campaign events. In his state of the nation address in 2017, Duterte accused Rappler of being wholly owned by Americans, in violation of media-ownership provisions in the Philippine constitution; later the same year, he spread conspiracy theories about the site deriving funding from the CIA. While Rappler does have foreign backers, including Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder whose media investments include The Intercept, it is wholly owned and operated by Filipinos—but that didn’t stop the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission from moving, in 2018, to effectively revoke Rappler’s license. Ressa and Rappler have subsequently faced charges of tax and securities fraud, which have yet to be resolved. In December 2018, Ressa narrowly avoided arrest on landing at an airport in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. In the first months of 2019, she was arrested on two separate occasions, and has repeatedly had to post bail to secure her freedom.

Last year, Ressa wrote about her arrests for CJR, as well as Duterte’s broader “campaign of disinformation—patriotic trolling—to pound critics into silence.” Duterte said around the time of his inauguration, in 2016, that “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.” Since then, he has lobbed allegations of fraud at the owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the country’s biggest English-language title, and ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest broadcast network. The Inquirer was sold to a pro-Duterte businessman. The government threatened to force ABS-CBN off the air; last month, it followed through after ABS-CBN’s license, which is granted by the country’s legislature, expired. Pro-Duterte lawmakers stalled efforts to extend the license, and the government refused ABS-CBN special dispensation to continue broadcasting while the issue was resolved.

Duterte’s war on the press goes far beyond censorship—he’s waged a brazen effort to exert almost total control over the Philippines’ information ecosystem. Almost all Filipinos with internet access use Facebook, which, thanks in part to subsidies that Facebook itself paid, is cheaper and easier to access than independent news sites; consequently, as Ressa wrote for CJR, “Facebook is our internet.” As Davey Alba explained in an exhaustive feature for BuzzFeed in 2018, allies of Duterte, who has admitted to deploying trolls during his election campaign, have flooded the platform with pro-government propaganda and crude smear campaigns—including the weaponization of pornography—targeting critical journalists and politicians. “There was no strong loyalty or support for news in the first place,” Clarissa David, a professor at the University of the Philippines, told Alba. “False news did not have to supplant the legacy brands. People went from no access to news to gaining access only through Facebook’s algorithm-driven news feed.”

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Facebook has ramped up fact-checking programs and other measures in the country, but critics say its approach remains inadequate. Abuse is routine on the platform—last week, Regine Cabato reported, for the Washington Post, that trolls cloned accounts belonging to reporters, including student journalists, in order to harass or incriminate them. The fresh trolling campaign came in the context of draconian new “anti-terror” legislation the legislature passed last week, which will likely give the government yet another pretext to stifle dissent. Already this year, Duterte signed legislation ostensibly aimed at curbing misinformation around the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. A few days later, the law was used to charge two journalists—Mario Batuigas and Amor Virata, who had reported on a local mayor’s social media posts about possible cases of the virus in Cavite City, south of Manila—with spreading false information.

Internationally, Ressa—a former CNN bureau chief who is a dual US citizen—is the most visible victim of Duterte’s war on the press, but she is far from alone. From lone typos to major media conglomerates, Duterte and his allies are leading a totalizing war on dissent in the Philippines and, in the process, tipping the country back toward its days of dictatorship. Writing for CJR, Ressa recalled starting out as a journalist in the late eighties, “covering Southeast Asia’s transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. It’s bizarre now to think of the euphoria then.”

Below, more on the Philippines and international press freedom:

  • Impunity: The Philippines has long been a dangerous country for journalists; according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least eighty-three reporters have been killed in connection with their work since 1992, and according to Reporters Without Borders, local officials are still able to have journalists killed without facing legal consequences. In 2009, thirty-two media workers were killed on the same day in an ambush in Maguindanao Province that was orchestrated by the sons of a local political leader; the journalists had been covering the politician’s opponent. Late last year, a court finally convicted the masterminds and twenty-six accomplices of the massacre. According to the CPJ, the massacre was “the single deadliest event for the press in history.”
  • A panel: Jason Rezaian, of the Washington Post, writes that the conviction of Ressa and Santos “will have severe ramifications for press freedom not only in South Asia but around the world.” On Friday, Rezaian will moderate a panel discussion with Ressa and Ramona Diaz, who has made a documentary about Duterte’s war on Rappler. You can find more details here.
  • The home front: Rezaian and others have argued that the US has lost the moral authority to speak out about abuses such as the conviction of Ressa. Yesterday, President Trump proved the point, telling reporters that John Bolton, his former national security adviser, will face “criminal problems” should he proceed with publishing a tell-all memoir that’s due out next week. “I will consider every conversation with me as president highly classified,” Trump said. (This is not how classification works.) According to ABC News, the Trump administration will likely seek an injunction against the book.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled, 6 to 3, that employers cannot fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Surprisingly, the majority opinion in the case was written by Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointee to the court; Carrie Severino, a conservative analyst who strongly backed Gorsuch’s appointment in 2017, accused him yesterday of a “bungled” decision that pandered to “college campuses and editorial boards.” Also yesterday, the court declined to hear cases that could have expanded gun-ownership rights, rebuffed Trump’s appeal against California’s sanctuary law, and declined to reconsider law enforcement’s qualified immunity from liability for misconduct.
  • Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara, the top editors at Voice of America, a US-state backed broadcaster, resigned yesterday following the Senate’s confirmation of Michael Pack, a right-wing documentarian who is close to Steve Bannon, to lead the agency that oversees VoA’s work. VoA is supposed to be editorially independent, but Trump has savaged its reporting and his administration has restricted its access; most recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blacklisted VoA reporters. Fears abound that Pack will politicize VoA; Sebastian Gorka, the Trump aide turned right-wing shock jock, is reportedly being considered for an oversight role. The Post has more details.
  • According to Lisa Friedman, of the Times, mid-ranking bureaucrats at various federal departments and agencies have internalized Trump’s war on climate science; censorship that was “once orchestrated largely by Trump’s political appointees” is now driven by “managers trying to protect their jobs and budgets and wary of the scrutiny of senior officials.” (Last year, I wrote about the suppression of government science for CJR.)
  • In newsroom-uprising news, journalists at the LA Times are speaking out internally about a lack of diversity at the paper and its coverage of race; the metro desk, which is the paper’s largest, counts just one Black reporter among a total of nearly ninety. NPR’s David Folkenflik has more. Elsewhere, more than a hundred and fifty staffers at the Wall Street Journal wrote management expressing similar concerns about diversity and coverage of racial issues.
  • CNN named Malcolm Jenkins, of the New Orleans Saints, as a paid commentator. The hire “marks the first time CNN has hired an active player of any sport as an on-air contributor,” the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Rob Tornoe writes, “and comes after the National Football League’s admission it was wrong not to listen to players’ concerns about racism and systematic oppression of black people.” Jenkins has been vocal on such issues.
  • For Digiday, Steven Perlberg profiles Quartz, which once harbored ambitious expansion plans but recently laid off nearly half its staff and closed several offices. It is now among the titles “that seemingly got caught in the mushy middle of 2010s digital media, like Mic and Mashable,” Perlberg writes. “Not quite niche enough to be essential to a small group of readers, but not quite big enough to compete at scale. Coronavirus didn’t help.”
  • Amid sharp media-industry cutbacks in Australia, officials made plans to force Facebook and Google to share ad revenue with news outlets. Both companies have rejected the idea. Yesterday, Facebook said, in a formal response, that it enjoys a “healthy rivalry” with news organizations, and that it would not lose out financially if it stopped hosting news altogether. Naaman Zhou and Amanda Meade have more for The Guardian.
  • And the Justice Department charged six former eBay staffers with “cyberstalking” a couple who criticized the company on their blog. The staffers allegedly sent the couple threatening messages on Twitter, as well as physical items including “live cockroaches, a funeral wreath…a preserved fetal pig, a bloody-pig Halloween mask, and a book on surviving the loss of a spouse.” The Journal’s Sebastian Herrera has more.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.